Emmanuel Uweru Okoh was born in Delta State, Nigeria. He is the author of Gardens and Caves, a poetry collection. His works have been published in NEXT, Saraba magazine and Sentinel Nigeria. A few others are ITCH Magazine of South Africa and Mad Hatters’ Review of Iceland. Emmanuel lives in Brandon, Canada.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember the circumstances that led you to write?
Emmanuel Uweru Okoh: In my early childhood, I listened, often to stories told by my Grandmother. She was a great storyteller, and I grew fond of her stories. This fondness also brought with it a passion to reproduce these stores. My infant mind, then, told me I would only achieve that through writing. Well, that came through for me. During my secondary school days, I became interested in English and Literature, which helped to put writing in my life scheme. So I’ve tried to nurture this interest over the years, although not without some falters as it is with a lot of other writers. Interestingly, while serving my country in the mandatory one year national service program as a new graduate, I developed my poetic voice. My service location in Osun State, Nigeria is one so close to nature; adorned with serenity and peace. There my romance with poetry heightened. So, I’ll say my writing was shaped when I started listening to my Grandma’s stories.
Geosi Gyasi: For how long have you been writing?
Emmanuel Uweru Okoh: I have always kept a journal since my primary school days. In there, I scribbled things I didn’t show anyone. Yes, I wrote a lot for myself only (I still do that sometimes). For me, it was like a personal training that needed some maturity before letting in the outside world. Or like not letting your little baby taken away from you too soon. Realistically, I will say I have been writing for 12 years, that I mean for magazines and other public platforms before being published in 2012 for my poetry collection “Gardens and Caves”.
Geosi Gyasi: Which of your poems would you say stand up best?
Emmanuel Uweru Okoh: This is a difficult one. I once asked my friends to choose which poems they would want me to read at a public reading I attended. The responses I got made me more confused. I found out, the poems they picked were different in themes and presentation. I had earlier made up my mind on some poems, and when I found them in their choice list, I felt good. But to answer this, one of my poems titled “Saro Wiwa’s Waiting War” is a strong one to me. It means a lot to me and everyone that cares about the world we live in. It has a voice that promotes environmental safety and sustainability. More interesting, is the central character of the poem; Ken Saro Wiwa, the late environmental crusader and writer. Unfortunately, his voice for a clean environment in the Oil producing Niger Delta of Nigeria was cut short as Saro Wiwa and eight others (The Ogoni Nine) were killed by hanging on November, 10, 1995 by military personnel.
SARO WIWA’S WAITING WAR
(for Ken Saro Wiwa)
By Emmanuel Uweru Okoh
My keen cry to Kenule: I, Fubara, of disjointed
Fishnet and gaping boat, from the land of kernel
Back feeling and staggering heritage.
Of gasping fish and de-flowered flowers,
Of frowning waters and stunted stalks.
I sit on a lonely log; One of the few remaining.
I write on a Dutchman’s Dollar paper.
It left the Howling Helicopter.
Black crude: my ink, my thin thighs: my table.
It’s a stolen converse Kenule, so, listen.
I know you still hear truth.
Your ink bullets still hover in mid-mission,
Taking stolen rests on shrunken leaves and
Greased waters. The cruel antics of the goggled
General regenerates in bloody resonance,
Feeding the rusty rulers of our land.
We await the revolution of fish and oysters
From long years of petrol-logged breath
And bone splinters from Shell’s shell.
Let the cry of prawns and Lobsters
Aid my call to you Kenule, while my throat
Is lubricated by this crude I drink.
Bright glow from Dutch giant metal
Candles steal our nights, blasting insects that dare
Hover. Caked soot sits on my nasal paths.
I breathe with my ears; ears saturated with news of
Inverted justice, of blood soaked loots I loathe.
Hear these words Kenule. And berth those
Ink bullets of fourth estate fame and stencil
Romance. That short romance of eternal frenzy
And gothic engravings of your letters that die,
Not from ‘feeble’ minds of Generals nor fumes
From the Dutch industrial farts.
“Saro Wiwa’s Waiting War” was a nominee entry in the 2010 memorial essay contest for the late activist and writer, Ken Saro Wiwa. The poem was recited at the commemorative vigil of Saro Wiwa in Huston Texas, USA.
Geosi Gyasi: How is the process of writing like for you? Do you do many drafts?
Emmanuel Uweru Okoh: It is usually a carefully thought out process for me. Yes, a lot of drafts go into my writing as a way of refining the work.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have specific subjects you write about?
Emmanuel Uweru Okoh: My writing is built by my mood and environment. Current issues also play a major role in my work. Social justice is something I am interested in as well as environmental safety. In all, I will say the tide and time determine my writing.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever have writer’s block?
Emmanuel Uweru Okoh: Of course. It happens a lot. It’s not an interesting phase of any writing project. Sometimes, you stare at a blank paper or computer screen for a very long time. Now this reminds me of a quote about writing. It says “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein and bleed” Well, sometimes, you have to wait for the continuity, the writing flow to come back home, your muse to take over you. Then you feel good once more.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever look to other writers for inspiration?
Emmanuel Uweru Okoh: Yes. Writing is majorly built by who and what you read. Then the rest is your creativity and your ability to arrest your readers. And give them what you have. So I take interest in some writers. A few of the many writers I am interested in are Chinua Achebe, Stephenie Meyer, Chuma Nwokolo,Teju Cole and Toni Kan.
Geosi Gyasi: How much success did you receive with the publication of Gardens and Caves?
Emmanuel Uweru Okoh: Even with the fact that a lot of people find poetry difficult to fall in love with, I have received a lot of positive feedback on Gardens and Caves. These tell of the success the book has achieved.
Geosi Gyasi: Is poetry hard to write?
Emmanuel Uweru Okoh: Like I said, my mood is a huge determinant of my writing. If not in the right frame of mind for creativity, a poem could linger for months. And if it goes so bad, it could end up in the recycle bin. In contrast, when you find your muse at the right time, you just set your hands on the keypad and there is this mysterious union developed with what you are writing at that moment. So I’ll say it is difficult in an easy way.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you read your reviews? What do you make of unfavourable reviews?
Emmanuel Uweru Okoh: Reviews are great to read. For me, it is always good to have them. It tells you what people feel about your work. I don’t know much about unfavourable reviews. I think a good review shouldn’t trash the art. Rather, a writer would do better after reading what you might term as unfavourable review. I have seen cases of wrangle between an editor and writer due to such reviews. In my opinion, when it gets that bad, just ignore the review and move on with your art. You have to love your art first. That way, it never goes bad. Some “ugly”paintings turn out to be the most costly. In all though, a good review provides room for improvement. No one person is perfect. And writing is far from a perfect art. That’s why they say we never finish writing any piece, we abandon it!
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever written out of anger?
Emmanuel Uweru Okoh: For me it is more of sadness than anger. They are quite different feelings. I know this point towards melancholic feelings and how it fuels writing. Yes, I have some of my writings that are not happy in themes. And while writing about that, you wouldn’t expect a fair amount of happiness. I say this because, a poem could draw tears if you are passionate about it and if you poured out your heart to it. An elegy to a friend you lost is one of such writings. You can’t help it. Then you let your tears aid you to an artful landing.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever attempted a poem written solely out of a personal experience?
Emmanuel Uweru Okoh: I have a section in Gardens and Caves. This section is titled “Whispers of Nature”, and deals more with my experiences with learning the ropes of life, how we shouldn’t try too hard to have control over what we are not meant to control. These were written out of personal experiences and the will to share the value and happiness in letting nature remain.